Is Serena Williams the best big-match player in the history of tennis? It’s a mighty big call, but time after time we’ve seen the winner of 13 Grand Slam singles titles raise her game during marquee matches when facing her biggest rivals.
How did she go from the nervous, shaky, error-prone player against Yaroslava Shvedova in the fourth round to the steely-gazed, ace-and-winner machine just 24 hours later against defending champion Petra Kvitova?
“I'm Serena Williams; I'm very confident,” she declared.
There’s no arguing with that. Let’s take a look at just how confident she is when the stakes are at their highest as she goes into her semi-final.
Serena sizzles in semis: Nobody seems to perform better than Williams in the latter stages of a major tournament. The American has a stratospheric 17-3 win-loss record in major semi-finals, including 6-1 at Wimbledon. Her last loss at the semi-final stage of The Championships came all the way back in 2000 against sister Venus. It’s certainly not a stat that bodes well for Victoria Azarenka, Williams’s semi-final opponent this year.
Vicious against Vika: Williams indeed seems to save some of her best tennis for when she plays Azarenka. In eight career matches between the pair, Williams has won seven, including five in straight sets. Two of those losses were especially demoralising for the Belarusian – she led their 2010 Australian Open quarter-final 6-4, 4-0 before Williams roared back, and in this year’s Madrid final, Serena spanked the recently crowned No.1 for the loss of just four games.
Best of the best: Williams’s dominance over Azarenka – plus her combined 3-0 winning record against potential finals opponents Agnieszka Radwasnka and Angelique Kerber – continues a theme of supremacy over her main rivals. She’s 40-22 in Grand Slams against top 10-ranked opponents, including 10-5 at the All England Club. In the past year she’s been even stronger, going 11-4 against top 10 players and winning the last six.
The serve: Part of this dominance can be attributed to her serve, regarded as one of the sport’s all-time biggest weapons and founded upon superb technique. It produced a women’s record of 23 aces in her third-round win over Zheng Jie, among her 61 aces for the tournament. “It definitely helped me out today because I wasn't doing my best on my return like I normally do. So it's good to know that I can rely on that,” she said.
Losses are motivating: Since shock losses to Maria Sharapova in the 2004 Wimbledon final and Sam Stosur in the 2011 US Open decider, Williams has gone a combined 9-1 against the pair. God help Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano, who knocked Williams out in the first round at Roland Garros this year. “I need to get over that,” Williams said. “So that's what I'm working on. I definitely play my way out of it. And then I also train a lot out of it and try to do things so I don't have to suffer that again.”
So are pep-talks: “You can't play a defending Wimbledon champion or Grand Slam champion and not elevate your game. I had to weed out the riff-raff and just get serious,” Williams said. She did so with the help of wise words from father Richard, sister Venus and advisor Patrick Mouratoglou, but remained guarded about the nature of those talks. “They're secrets that I want to keep,” was all she ventured.
Mental toughness: “I've always been really strong mentally. That's not going anywhere,” remarked Williams. A fabulous front-runner, Williams is 189-4 in Grand Slam matches when she wins the first set. She also has the best winning percentage (44.6 per cent) among active players after dropping the first set in tour-level matches, the next best being Sharapova (38.9 per cent) and Kim Clijsters (38.3 per cent). And how’s this for nerves of steel? Williams is the only player in history to save match points en route to three Grand Slam titles.
Intimidating aura: Williams’s imposing physical presence, power and dagger-like stares at opponents combine to make her one of the most intimidating athletes in the world. And she knows it. Mobbed by fans on her way back from No.2 Court following her fourth-round victory, this was her response: “I wasn't scared. Nobody [was] going to knock me over for real. I'd like to see that happen. You guys know how I can get.”
Serena ignores the stats: While statistics continue to cement Williams as the best player of her generation, she’s not paying much attention to them. And she focuses even less on her opponents’ records. It mattered little that Kvitova was a sparkling 21-0 indoors in 2011, or that she had won 27 of her past 28 indoor matches. With the roof shut over Centre Court for their quarter-final match, Williams made a mockery of that stat with her straight-sets win.
Continuing to thrive: The Kvitova match marked the first time Serena had experienced the conditions created by a closed roof at Wimbledon. And she loved it. “It was amazing for me. There was no elements, no excuses. [I loved] the sound of the balls. It's kind of like a whoosh and a pop. It's really cool,” she enthused. Despite her many years on tour, it’s clear she retains an undying love for the game, and the new experiences and emotions it continues to bring.
Though hard to quantify with statistics, this passion could be what makes her the most dangerous on the biggest stages. Azarenka, and possibly Radwanska or Kerber on Saturday, are about to find out.